Michael Ashburner on Funding Scientific Research
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 08 May 2008

I have very mixed feelings about top down management of science, you know the funders. It’s partly because there is so much money involved, you know the funders, our colleagues and the National Institutes of Health who, you know, fund the extra research, they like, they like to see long term plans and they want to know what’s going to happen because they’re answerable to congress in the long run and the idea that you could just give to someone, you know and say: ‘Go away and work for five years and then come back and tell us what you’ve done.’ It’s very difficult. Governments like to plan, and, you know, I can understand, I can understand this, because you know, governments are paying for science, the NIH is spending forty billion dollars a year on biomedical research in the U.S. and you simply can’t give people, you can’t, you can’t just give people money and tell them to come back in five years and tell you what they’ve done. You have to plan it and some projects like these big genome projects, in some ways it’s not science it’s technology. I mean yesterday the platypus genome was published in Nature and you know there was a piece in New York, you can read Rick Wilson in the New York Times today, you know, ‘The Platypus Genome,’ that’s not really science in the sense that the platypus has a genome, that genome has a sequence, at least that particular individual platypus from which they got the DNA had a sequence and it’s really just a question of turning the crank. You know it’s an achievement and it’s very interesting and that you can plan. We could set out a road map in the NIH for which you’ve done, but... But, which you can’t plan for are the totally unexpected breakthroughs. Like when Andy Fire discovered RNAI, yeah, he wasn’t looking for it, he was doing something else, yeah. It has changed our lives, yeah. When the first small RNA genes were identified in Bob Horvitz’s lab in MIT, like 20 years ago, they weren’t looking for non-protein coating genes, you know, they found it, by chance and were very puzzled by it. But that important discovery involves now, twenty, almost twenty years ago now, I think, it’s changed the whole of genetics. You know, had Bob Horvitz’s set out and written a grant proposal that they were to study non-protein coating genes in the worm, yeah, people would have just said ‘No, it’s too speculative.’

Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.

He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.

Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).

Michael Ashburner